GMAT Timing is a challenge
Most of my students are anxious about the about the fact that the GMAT is a computer adaptive test (CAT). Why? Well, most people don't do so well on their first GMAT CAT. Why? GMAT timing is difficult. Time management is tough under pressure. If you don't have a good GMAT timing strategy you might have an awful time with the GMAT CAT. Especially your first GMAT CAT.
However, in a certain sense we should be thankful for the GMAT CAT. Why you may ask? Well, imagine that the GMAT were like the LSAT and that you could only take the GMAT on 4 weekends per year. Pretty brutal. Also imagine waiting for weeks to get the results. Agony! Beyond that, think of the trees that are being saved. 😉
But this post isn’t really about celebrating the fact that the GMAT is a CAT but about helping you think about your bad GMAT timing strategies that stem from cognitive biases that are hard wired into your brain. Hugh?? Yeah, you are pre-programmed to make some bad GMAT timing decisions. Why is that? Well, two big things.
Bad GMAT Timing Decisions: Loss Aversion
We are more sensitive to losing something that we have than from profiting from something in the future. That means that in a GMAT CAT during which you only see one question at a time you are more likely to sit (and waste time) on the loser that is in front of you than to consider moving forward to a potential winner later on in the test.
In fact, behavioral studies have shown that people are twice as sensitive to losses as they are to gains. That is huge! So the fact that the question is in front of you at the moment has a profound effect on your decision making. Your brain doesn’t want to let go of what is in front of you whether that is good for your GMAT score or not. Most students (especially when starting out) spend too much time on the current failure rather than moving to the potential success (or two) later on in the exam. You are programmed to spend too much time on failures. You have to work to counter this GMAT timing bias.
So what can you do to improve your time management? Forget about the CAT! Pretend that the GMAT is a pen and paper test. On a paper test, most people skip over tough questions and save them for the end if there's time. Makes sense right? What tends to happen on the GMAT is the opposite. Students tend to spend time on challenging questions and then have to skip easier questions later on in the exam because of timing issues.
So imagine that the questions are in fact all laid out in front of you and that for every question that is difficult there will an easier one later on (there probably will be). You may get a question early on that preys on a weakness but later on the test may be full of content that you are very comfortable with. The GMAT machine does not know your strengths and weaknesses. On my last exam question 35 was very easy.
In your practice guess and move on tough questions so that you retrain your instincts (which in this case are not helping). Forget about the fact that the GMAT is a computer adaptive test and focus on the idea that every GMAT test is identical: the questions just get shifted around. Spend time on winners (content that you know). Cut loose the losers (time/energy leeches that you get wrong anyways).
Bad GMAT Timing Decisions: Single Evaluation v. Joint Evaluation:
Human beings have a tough time judging the value of things in isolation. Given one piece of jewelry you might have a very difficult time placing an exact value on it but given two pieces of jewelry you would be able to say which one you find more appealing. How does this affect your GMAT Timing? Well, on the GMAT CAT we are forced to do single evaluation of questions. That makes it difficult to decide how much time to devote to any particular question because you don’t know whether there will be a more appealing question later on.
How do you do a joint evaluation when you only see one question at a time? As George Michael put it: “You gotta have faith”.
Every GMAT tests the same mix of skills. You may be better at spatial reasoning than algebraic translation. Every GMAT CAT will have both. You have to imagine that the easier (for you) question already exists later on in the test so manage your time early on so that you can solve these easier questions. Imagine the GMAT as a paper test during which you would naturally ignore the tough questions and answer the ones that come easier to you. Of course the GMAT isn’t a paper test and you can’t see what is coming but you “gotta have faith” that there will be something better later on in the exam. GMAT time management is about preserving time so you can give every question a fair chance. From analyzing hundreds of practice tests I’ve noticed an obvious trend: Students spend much more time on getting questions wrong than on getting questions right (to the point that they don’t even get to see all of the questions in the exam). Once the balance shifts the other way, GMAT scores tend to go up.